Gala, set to replace Cox as the top dessert variety this year for the first time, was judged the best of 89 entries in the East Kent Fruit Society (EKFS) orchard competition.
The winner was first-time entrant AC Goatham with a 4.5ha block of Mondial Gala in its fourth year. The "orchard of the year" is on Gore Farm, bought by Clive Goatham in 2007. The farm has been totally replanted over the past four years.
More than three-quarters of its 40ha of orchards are Gala, mostly Mondial with a small area of Galaxy and other clones. The rest are Braeburn, Rubens and Bramley's Seedling. EKFS members inspected the farm near Sittingbourne, Kent, last month.
Goatham production manager Dave Riccini said Gala had been chosen as the main variety because there was always strong demand, and with its good yield and consistently high class 1 gradeout it was reasonably profitable.
"Our Gala yields are still building," he said. "We expect a reasonable crop of 22 to 24 tonnes/ha in year two and then look for 34 tonnes in year three, 52 tonnes in year four and then a peak of 65 to 70 tonnes. I don't see why we cannot achieve Dutch yields, particularly since our market demands smaller fruit size."
Estimated yield of the winning orchard is 52 to 56 tonnes/ha or about 22kg/tree. The trees, on M9 rootstock, are spaced at 3.5x1.2m, supported by a wire trellis, cane and timber-post system. Trickle irrigation is fed from a borehole-filled reservoir.
"When Clive bought Gore Farm it had just a few acres of Crispin and old cherries, and the rest was mainly pick-your-own strawberries and asparagus," said Riccini. "Most of the land had orchards at some time but we've had no replant (disease) problems."
The competition was judged by Masstock's Brendan Rhodes, grower William Riccini and former grower Jack Martin with the Farm Advisory Services Team's James Sillitoe acting as steward.
Rhodes said his immediate impression of the winning orchard was it was extremely well managed and looked after, with a high standard of pest and disease control.
General standards were high, with best and worst separated by only a few marks.
"Scab levels were very low and mildew in most orchards had been very well controlled," he added. "The biggest problem was aphids, rosy apple aphid being the worst."
Goatham, who has 405ha of orchards on 10 farms, said: "I'm immensely proud of my team being so successful at our first attempt.
"I have always viewed the competition as the Olympics of fruit growing."
AWARD WINNERS - MAIN CATEGORIES
Best new entrant: AC Goatham
Hygiene award: AC Goatham
Best orchard with more than 1,000 trees/acre: N Bardsley
Best orchard with fewer than 1,000 trees/acre: AC Goatham
Most commercial blocks of fruit: A Scripps
Best young orchard (in third leaf): AC Goatham
Cox: FW Mansfield
Dessert other than Cox: AC Goatham
Culinary: N Bardsley
Most commercial orchard: C Baxter
Pears: N Bardsley
Plums: N Bardsley
Cherries: C Baxter